2020 Mid-Year Catch-Up: Reviews of SHIRLEY and SPACESHIP EARTH

by Ken Bakely

As we arrive at the midpoint of the year, I’ve gone back and started catching up with some noted movies from the last six months. As streaming becomes the only practical form currently available to films, this gives both an easier opportunity to keep tabs on titles of interest and makes it somewhat harder to stay up to date. I begin with capsule reviews of Josephine Decker’s Shirley and Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth.


Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)

Josephine Decker brings the wild, rapturous, experimental, and indelible energy we have come to expect from her films to Shirley, a fictional film (based on a novel) that nonetheless imagines writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband – literature professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) – as central characters, and is set at their home in Vermont, sometime in the 1950s. At the start of the film, they have just taken in Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), a newly married couple. Fred is Stanley’s new assistant at Bennington College, while Rose finds herself pulled in all manner of unclear directions and frenetic experiences merely being in Shirley’s presence. Rose feels eminently unseen, with her own academic ambitions dashed as her husband’s take off. Her sense of disillusionment is none better spending the days with Shirley – who struggles while writing her next novel and never leaves the house – and the mood becomes even more perturbed when the acidic and caustic Stanley comes home from work. The film, from this setup, moves with a free and enthusiastic speed, speeding through abstract interpretations of Rose’s mind, finding a space all its own to examine its observations on its characters, the art within, and how its characters create their art within. Its free-form style will undoubtedly not appeal to every viewer, but to watch it is to, at the very least, feel incredibly compelled by the raw and unquantifiable drive of its spirit.

What helps the film, even for those who may not end up appreciating it on its own merits, is the assuredness that Decker steers the proceedings with. Lengthy dialogue scenes and more abstract sequences steering through the visualizations of characters’ minds or surroundings are treated with the same passionate enthusiasm, ensuring that the movie is always unified under a particular aesthetic and artistic mold. And as the title character, Moss delivers another fully committed and fearless performance, interpreting Shirley Jackson with immediate, sharp presence when interacting with others in her home, and a more distant and unknowable enigma when the focus shifts to a more internalized perspective. While the sheer intensity of watching Shirley can feel like a lot to take in – possibly to the point that even those predisposed to to its style early on may feel a bit overswept by the push-pull of both the relentlessness of its immediate impression and the cloudiness that it takes when drawing these often puzzling characters – one can’t fault the film for being uncertain. Set largely in one location in a physical sense (the moody, creaky old New England house) it has all of the spacial intimacy of a chamber play, with the limited character count to boot; but the way that Decker paints this colorful and startling portrait of creative inspiration, and the challenging imagination of the real-life woman at its center, shows with the vast range of a filmmaker who embraces and explores the medium with a witty, complex, and kaleidoscopic palette. Rating: three stars out of four.

Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth (dir. Matt Wolf)

At the intersection of the remnants of late ‘60s idealism and a science-based, optimistically forward-thinking look into a hypothetical future was Biosphere 2, an emulation of the Earth’s environmental systems encased in a sealed-off glass facility. The exclusive – as in, they could not leave – residence and workplace for a small team of wide-eyed researchers between 1991 and 1993, their entrance into the sphere was covered with the media hype of a rocket launch, and the problems which arose later on were discussed with bemused fascination. All of this, from the perspective of the participants, is chronicled in Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth. The documentary’s scope is extensive, seeking to touch upon each and every piece of background information that led this project to be, and once there, what happens when it naturally can’t live up to the lofty expectations that had been set for it. Yet at the same time, the film suffers from perhaps biting off a little too much, choosing breadth over depth at times, and leaving us somewhat in the dark in how the sheer scale of everything all came together, and how the proverbial cracks started forming when the experiment begun. Wolf gives us a lot of information, and presents what there is with a thorough professionalism, but one can’t help but feel that there’s more to understanding the picture as fully as might be expected by the end of this two hour film.

Spaceship Earth extensively educates us of the leadup and the eventual fate of Biosphere 2: the actual facility is under the care of the University of Arizona, but only after a lengthy period in which a team of businesspeople – led by Steve Bannon, because of course it would be – essentially looked to sell it into oblivion. It’s been through a lot, this facility. While not shying away from the faults which seem to dog the project from its inception (or at least, issues apparent to everyone except those involved, who invested their lives into the project and the emotional meaning of it), Wolf clearly harbors a deep and genuine interest in the subject matter, as he looks for the story beyond the ephemeral snippets of the news cycle which followed it at the time. Any story documenting the project beyond its launch and its difficulties is a more full than a narrative whose knowledge base comes solely from its contemporary reception in the press would have, and this movie points out that there are takeaways in and around the Biosphere project – from sustainability, to capitalism, to critiques of the composition of the team itself (everyone in this supposedly comprehensive social living experiment was white) – that are deeply relevant to this day. The movie struggles in exploring some of these angles with sufficient detail to feel as completely informative as it should, but Wolf guides us through this tale to see the depthful questions behind the eccentricities. Rating: Two and a half stars out of four.